The Method Gears






Charles Chaplin may seem an odd vehicle for an icon of the 1930s in America. An Englishman whose politics and heart remained in Britain, a national figure who made more money than the President, even through the Depression, and a silent star in the face of the "triumph of the talkies" (Cooney 73) in Hollywood, Chaplin was, in many ways, an outsider. Nearly five thousand films were produced in the thirties, but Chaplin produced only two pictures, neither of which fell into any of the flourishing genres of the decade. It may be that it is precisely this outsider quality, and the resistance implied therein, that is iconic; these are embodied by Chaplin's universally recognized creation, the Little Tramp, who became known to all as "Charlie."

The very act of movie-going in the thirties was a popular phenomenon. Hollywood would seem to be reliant on society's having a certain amount of disposable income, but even in the throes of the Depression, the film industry, at least in comparison to many other industries, thrived. Part of Chaplin's success during this decade was due to his already-established reputation. Charlie appeared first in 1914 and was an immediate sensation. Audiences quickly learned what to expect from a Chaplin film in terms of pace and tone. Though his two films of the 1930s differ dramatically from his earlier work, they still had his name on the marquee as an automatic draw. In addition, early Chaplin shorts were continually re-released throughout the decade, providing audiences with regular dosages of the Little Tramp.

Of course, Charlie was more than a recognizable and widely disseminated figure; he represented a set of values resonant with American audiences from the beginning. The 1930s presented Chaplin with a situation in which he had to make a number of decisions about Charlie's place in popular culture. These were decisions also forced onto society about the relevance of an old set of values in a new time. The convergence of technological advances, a nationwide financial crisis, and an increasing sense of the need to define the place and role of popular culture created a unique environment in the thirties. The Little Tramp stumbled into the scene a popular icon, but he would not make it out of the decade. Charlie's coming of age in 1931's City Lights was followed in 1936 by his last screen appearance in Modern Times, a film which marks the figurative demise of the Little Tramp in the age of the big machine.

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